What’s new in multilateralism?

I think that the current system is multilateral, which shapes how actors perceive what is appropriate. States do not invent a new response to each new problem. I have been puzzled since last fall, therefore, by the concept of a “new” multilateralism. Does this refer to the generic institutional form, or to the concrete shape it takes in a particular context? Recent posts by Art Stein leave me even more puzzled.

As an empirical proposition, Alan Alexandroff was right to suggest that Stein’s formulation might not apply to Canada, since we do not normally see multilateralism as an alternative to unilateralism. Only a power that believes itself to be (potentially) hegemonic has the ability to consider the possibility of unilateral action. Only a U.S. administration like the present one, that no more thinks in terms of an international “system” than Margaret Thatcher understood “society”, would even dream of as many unilateral options as it does. In a similar conceptual fuzziness, some writers conceive of the options in the response to problems in the control of inter-state violence as multilateralism vs. unilateral “preventive war”. If this opposition were useful, Patti Goff would be right to wonder if the use of force is fundamentally at odds with multilateralism. But surely collective security whether at the UN or NATO must envisage the use of force.  

Participants in this project might benefit from more discussion on this core idea, if a “new multilateralism” provides the reason we wish to argue for “global institutional reform”, though we can easily think of other motivations for the project. Here are three:

  1. the rise of new powers (e.g. BRICSAM) necessitates reform of international organizations
  2. globalization means that every state now wishes to be an activate participant in global governance, which requires a re-ordering of international organizations
  3. the basic structure of international organization was created in an earlier era, and the exiting organizations are old and tired, therefore global institutional reform is needed.

These three are not mutually exclusive, and none require consideration of a new multilateralism. So what does this phrase mean?

For realists of the Wall Street Journal persuasion, as for American sovereignists, “old” multilateralism is associated with universalism. Coalitions of the willing are a “new” multilateralism because they include no more countries than needed for the task at hand, and nobody (other than the USA) has a veto, especially not the French or the Russians. On the left, “new multilateralism” seems to mean a radical restructuring of multilateral institutions from the bottom up. In Canada, where the term was used in the Martin government’s foreign policy review, new multilateralism seems to refer to a diplomacy oriented to promoting democracy, public health, and sustainable development. Before offering some thoughts on our key term, let me offer some comments on recent posts.

Art Stein March 8

When people talk of multilateralism or the lack of it, they really have in mind the US and whether it is going it alone or in concert with others.  The US is the LRS (the lone remaining superpower), and thus other countries have a heightened interest in the US acting in concert with them rather than going it alone ….  For the US to act in concert with others, it must have an interest in doing so; any argument today about mutlilateralism has perforce to start with an argument about the interests of the US in doing anything but going it alone.
Wolfe comment

There are few issues on which the USA actually tries to go it alone, and few where it succeeds. Any argument about multilateralism and the USA, therefore, should actually start with the wide array of situations where that country does respect global norms, or seeks to work with others. There is a question of form and substance here. Americans (especially in Congress) do not like to believe that foreigners, even a treaty or an international organization, could compel the USA to do anything. In practice, U.S. action is often shaped by multilateral norms and rules as much as any other country, even if officials are not required to admit it.  

Art Stein March 20

When we talk about multilateralism then we mean more than a set of states combining their capabilities to achieve some objective.  We also have in mind the legitimacy that comes from states acting in concert because their objectives are not particularistic national interests but common interests.

This raises a number of issues about multilateral concerted action.  How many states are needed to achieve the legitimacy that multilateralism is intended to provide? Conversely, how much opposition and by how many and whom undercuts the legitimacy of multilateral efforts?  Moreover, does multilateralism require more than merely a signal of commitment?  The US obtained many signatories in the second Iraq War and even small and medium contributions and yet was seen as acting unilaterally?  Why was that?

Wolfe comment:

First, multilateralism is legitimate in itself because it is now deeply embedded in the constitutional structure of contemporary global order. The procedural norms of the society of states include notably sovereign equality and the peaceful settlement of disputes. The legitimate use of military or economic force other than in self-defense requires collective authorization. Action can be legitimate, in short, because it is multilateral.

Finally, multilateral need not mean universal, and legitimacy need not mean that all states agree. The familiar K group ideas are relevant to multilateral legitimacy as they are to action.

Art Stein May 2

All this implies that multilateralism, if it is to mean joint action in dealing with problematic global issues, must entail not only agreement on core values but also on the means of achieving desired outcomes in world affairs.  And does this imply that the price of multilateralism is the broad acceptance of the least common denominator when there is disagreement among a core group of states (however that core is defined) about tactics?  Is the price of multilateralism that it is subject to a unit veto?  Is it possible to sustain multilateralism on the basis of agreement on principles and values and objectives but with a recognition of divergent tactical approaches?

Wolfe comment:

For Walzer’s “pluralism” substitute “multilateralism.” Multilateralism, Ruggie argued, should be understood as a generic institutional form which coordinates relations among three or more states on the basis of “generalized” principles of conduct–that is, principles which specify appropriate conduct for a class of actions, without regard to the particularistic interests of the parties or the strategic exigencies that may exist in any specific occurrence. It follows that there is an agreed indivisibility among the members of a collectivity with respect to the range of behavior in question and that there is an expectation of “diffuse reciprocity.”   The concept of multilateralism here refers to the constitutive rules that order relations in given domains of international life. Within this architectural form there are “regimes,” which are more concrete than an order (typically, the term “regime” refers to a functional or sectoral component of an order) and formal international organizations, which are palpable entities with headquarters and letterheads.

Has this generic institutional form changed? I don’t think so, but it is generic. In my contribution, I look at the changes that motivate discussion of reform of the WTO. And need we worry that disagreements about life within an international organization endanger multilateralism? I think that the U.S. government has been unduly criticized on such grounds—the institution is too robust to be endangered by the actions of one administration, even if the current UN ambassador succeeds in doing real harm to the UN as an organization (as some suspect he will).

- Robert Wolfe

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